Tag Archives: health

Exhaling

IMAGE: John Giorno, It’s Not What Happens It’s How You Handle It, 2016, rainbow silkscreen print; seen recently at the Rubin Museum of Art

I may be problematically superstitious. I don’t trust when things go too well for too long. I start to look around suspiciously, holding my breath and waiting for something to go wrong. I used to think it was a kind of distorted karmic balance, that I could not have something exciting and positive happen (completing my master’s degrees) without something catastrophic and painful too (losing my grandmother). As the years have gone by, I have embraced a different reality, that life comes at you as it does, good, bad, and sometimes both at once. But I still find myself on edge at times.

For the past few months (I can date it pretty precisely back to a time in 2016) I have felt trapped in an onslaught of fear, bad news, cataclysm, worse news, and this cycle of uneasiness that has made me afraid to exhale completely. The good times have felt like stepping out into the sun after torrential rains, not knowing if the day is getting brighter, or if I’ve moved into the eye of a hurricane. The bad times have felt like just another step in the march toward disaster that seems increasingly irreversible and inevitable. Depending on how closely you read the news and where your family lives, I reckon you have probably felt similarly at times.




Falling Water – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, southern Iceland. (Prints available)

I set a challenge for myself this year to dig deep and mine my strategic reserves of positivity and optimism, to be strong enough to maintain hope and believe in the fundamental benevolence of nature and humanity. I have made a conscious shift in my art to move away from simply reflecting the present moment of uncertainty or trepidation to instead present a long-view vision of hope, healing, and beauty wrought from the complexity of experience and time. I still believe it is the only way to move forward: we cannot create a better future if we can’t imagine it. But lately, whew, the universe has been piling it on, hasn’t it?

I used to think it was a curse that my body would betray me at the times I needed to be my strongest. Odds are way too high that if I am on a work trip or have some massive opportunity, I will suddenly come down with bronchitis or pneumonia. To my great astonishment, I got all the way through my exhibit and almost through the end of the second show I was in this summer before I was sidelined with intense, piercing chest pain that was so severe I couldn’t draw a complete breath or lie down on my side. At first I thought it was from a pulled muscle from being clumsy with luggage or moving paintings around, but as it intensified, it seemed most likely to be pericarditis, an old scourge I’ve battled a few times since high school. The main treatments are rest and an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, and I was reminded how crucial it is to actually mind the rest part.

At one point a few weeks ago while not resting, I found myself in another uncomfortably familiar situation: over an hour and several transfers away from my apartment with my hands full of too much stuff, rushing around trying to do too many things, stricken by pain and wondering how I was going to make it home. I took a (shallow) breather on a park bench and texted my mother to whine. After declining her offer to pay for a car back to my apartment (I didn’t want to add motion sickness to the cocktail of blech), I promised that I would not overdo it, reading and rereading her sweet closing line on the way home, “Please take care of yourself baby. We only have one Vicki.”


P1100174-001

Lavender Clouds – Soft pink and light purple cumulous clouds at sunset over New York Harbor.
(Prints available)

I started to realize that it didn’t particularly matter if I was sitting on a hot subway platform trying not to smell people or lying uncomfortably in my bed trying not to roll over the bulwark of pillows onto my left side. My chest was going to hurt for as long as it would, until I gave my heart the time and stillness it needed to heal. That sounds so much more poetic and metaphorical than the literal reality at the time, but it felt instructive in a larger sense that is applicable now that I am better. Whenever my body forces me to take a pause, it lets my mind catch up, and when I let myself heal I come back stronger and more collected than I was before.

I struggle because I keep taking on the emotional weight of all the things I can’t control. No one can stop the forces of nature that are ravaging the world right now with hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. Yes, we all know that they were exacerbated by global warming, but it’s already done. I personally don’t have the power to stop the full-on genocide being perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar any more than I can compel Saudi Arabia to stop their campaign of annihilation against Yemen or depose Bashar al Assad myself and set up infrastructure repairs and irrigation to start healing Syria. The frustration and pain of this helplessness, coupled with the rage brought on by violations against the sanctity of life, can be white hot and blinding. But I can’t help anyone from a place of anger or without a clarity of thinking. I am not adding anything to the world when I am holding my breath or overwhelmed with sadness. I need to let the feelings run through me, then dig deeper and be creative if I will find ways to inspire change.



I need to remember my mother’s urging: we only have one Vicki. I can’t fix racism and white supremacy and all the ugly things that hate drives people to do. I can raise awareness and try to change people’s minds when I see it though. I can’t fix the mess we have made of our environment by myself, but I can lift my own standards and encourage concern for nature in others. I can’t heal my friends’ and family’s illnesses or take away their pain, but I can be there with them and make sure they know how much I love them. I don’t have the kind of money that can buy a senator or influence policy change, but I can give whatever I can to the causes I believe in and encourage others to donate. I don’t have a loud voice, but I can take care that I use it as effectively and mindfully as I can, in writing, in actions, and in my thoughts. I am just one person, but so is everyone else.

I don’t want to walk around holding my breath anymore, waiting for the other shoe to drop, answering cheerful greetings from friends with heavy sighs and “all things considered” caveats. There was suffering and inequality in the world before, and unfortunately, there will continue to be; it seems hard-wired into humanity still. I can’t fix it all, and I’m not sure I can really make a difference at anything. But I can be fully present with the people in my life and give my whole heart (occasionally impaired though it may be). I can write and make art and do everything I can to inspire compassion and kindness in the world. Many hands make light work, so I can join my hands with others for what matters.

And I can remember to breathe. I can’t take the next breath until I exhale.

Midsummer catch-up

As adverse as I am to routines / wholly unable to manage any kind of consistency in daily life, I find my months and years flow in a personal, seasonal kind of rhythm, as I suspect most people’s do. Maybe it’s a holdover from summer vacations during the school year, or I’m keenly aware of my circadian cycles, or I’m secretly a migratory bird who’s gotten stuck in the northeast after being distracted by an abundance of food one summer. Either way, every July I get restless and spend more time traveling than at home, becoming the proverbial grasshopper fiddling the summer away and flitting from pleasure to pleasure.



And by August, it usually catches up with me and I find myself worn down and sick right when I’d most like to shift into full-time hedonism (fish are jumping, cotton is high etc). Last year I brought some weird food poisoning-typhoid hybrid back from India and spent a few weeks panicking about barfing at work every day. Then I decided it was time to screw up my whole system by adjusting medications, which was necessary, but basically took me out of commission the rest of the summer. The year before that I dragged a summer cold out from June forward, in and out of bronchitis and eventually pneumonia (with extra fun coughing-up-blood-at-work) for a month in Paris in September. So this year I was resolute that, now that I am in control of my schedule and living a much more balanced, healthy life, there was no reason to spend my midsummer miserable and sick.



Of course, hubris got the better of me, and on the very same day I actually bragged to friends about how “I just don’t get sick anymore,” I very foolishly and disgustingly smoked half a cigar, inhaling it deeply enough to burn the hell out of my throat and airway. I’m allergic to tobacco smoke, and as drunk as I was at the time, I knew as I got on the subway and could feel my throat swelling shut that I’d made a huge mistake. I woke up the next day with a terrible case of self-inflicted bronchitis and all the self-loathing I could stand, and as I spent the next week and a half in bed with a fever, a chest full of sludge, wheezing and coughing up every grievance my body has ever had to air, it gave me way, way too much time to think about where I’m at in my life and how I’ve gotten here. I think it’s safe to say that this September’s back-to-school resurgence of energy will include a hefty dose of discipline and self-improvement.

But! Before I felled myself in maybe the grossest way I could think of, I was having a great summer!



On a whim, my mother and I went to the Ananda Ashram in upstate NY for an incredible Homa ceremony performed by Amma Sri Karunamayi, which was truly both spiritually and sensuously beautiful in every way. There is something genuinely magical about breathing the smoke of offering fires while chanting in Sanskrit, catching a glimpse of the wind blowing through the trees, and feeling viscerally connected to the earth and alive. I will have a lot more to say about that experience in another post, but it put me in a tremendously open, say-yes-to-everything sort of mindset.

We reconnected with some of my grandmother’s newly rediscovered first cousins (also will have much more to say about this in another post) and I was utterly delighted to find that not only are they instantly recognizable as family, with some of our same idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, but they are just incredibly lovely people. I stayed for a nice long visit in New Jersey over the Fourth of July, transporting another big pile of paintings and works on paper up to my studio, and trying to get the first round of Boardman Summer Camp in (sailing, beach, time on the deck, cookouts, bicycling, hiking, etc.)



I went to my lovely cousin Michelle’s engagement party (more photos here) and visited with lots more family. I’ve become that weird older cousin who vividly remembers when my younger cousins were born and gets all mushy and sentimental, so I promised Michelle I’d get it all out of the way now and try to be cool at her wedding. (We all know I won’t be cool.)



My brother came into the city to see Radiohead with me at Madison Square Garden, and I’ll pause for a second so you also can wrap your mind around the fact that I somehow won whatever cosmic lottery one has to win to get impossible-to-get Radiohead tickets AND that I got to see my favorite band in the world live AND they played “Karma Police” and everyone sang along and it was honestly everything I’ve always dreamed of in a concert.



It was a phenomenal show, as you can probably surmise from the setlist, but I would also be happy to ramble on at length in person because, holy hell, Thom Yorke.

I then spent the next two days cooking food for the 60th birthday party we threw for my brilliant, beautiful Mom. For once in my life, I cooked a huge spread of vaguely Tuscan food actually worth photographing, but I was so exhausted and frazzled trying to keep the party running so she could visit with her guests that I took exactly four photos at the party and none of the food. I know, I’ve let us all down.

So please try to imagine the following menu, all cooked from scratch with lots of love, using as much local, organic produce as possible:

Hors d’Oeuvres

  • Caprese skewers (fresh mozzarella, basil leaf, half a grape tomato, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper)
  • Prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe
  • Spinach-artichoke dip with pita chips
  • Crab dip (my mom made both dips)
  • Fresh guacamole and pico de gallo with tortilla chips (Mom also made these)
  • Roasted nuts

Mains

  • Italian sausage and peppers
  • Chicken piccata
  • Four-cheese ravioli in a summer squash and sweet corn cream with marjoram and blistered heirloom tomatoes (this is maybe my favorite dish I’ve ever made up)
  • Grilled shrimp skewers (my dad made these)
  • Grilled London broil (my dad also made this, and the less said of it the better)

Sides

  • Herbed orzo
  • Organic herb salad with Bosc pears, bleu cheese, English cucumbers, and toasted walnuts with a lemon vinaigrette
  • Garlic green beans
  • Rosemary focaccia

Desserts

  • Galician almond cake with spiced pears and vanilla cream cheese frosting (I arranged pear slices on top into a dahlia, and I still didn’t take a damn photo!)
  • Coconut tres leches cake
  • Sliced kiwis and strawberries with dried cranberries
  • Cranberry-orange dark chocolate chip cookies
  • Chocolate-covered strawberries
  • Lime bars

A great group of my mom’s friends and family were able to come, including our new/old family that we’d just met, and it seemed like everyone had a good time talking, visiting, and celebrating my lovely mom. When I asked her the next day if she’d had a nice party, she seemed warmly touched when she said absolutely yes.



My mom’s actual birthday came a few days later, so I stayed in NJ getting in more beach time, hiking, sailing, garden and deck time with the dogs, and general relaxed visiting with my family. My nice brother took us all out to barbecue on my mother’s birthday, I briefly reconsidered switching from mostly-vegetarian to fully-carnivore, and I returned to NY with an irrepressible smile and restored sense of who I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.

I even got over my fear of the ocean and swam, gleefully and peacefully, which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t done in years. And I know I haven’t enjoyed it so much since I was a kid.



This summer I also discovered, to no great surprise, that I am fanatically in love with Bhangra music and dancing, and although I am hopelessly uncoordinated when it comes to the more traditional moves, I’m kind of in the zone when it comes to bhangra-90s hip hop fusion. As soon as my lungs can bear it, I will be back out on the dance floor.

There is a whole lot else going on, some great, some less so, and I will have a lot more to say in the coming weeks as I try to get over the remains of this gross cough, get caught up with work / business stuff, and get going on new and exciting things. I still have a ton of other stuff I want to fit into this summer, and I know it will be way too soon that I start catching the first nips of chill in the evenings and the scent of autumn on the way.